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A sapper and a mensch

Alexander Baron was an East Ender, a bohemian communist, and one of the great chroniclers of postwar

In her recent study of 20th-century English art and letters, Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris tells of a young soldier, killed during the D-Day landings, who carried with him a copy of Other Men's Flowers, the popular wartime collection of English poetry edited by Field Marshal Wavell. Harris uses the incident to symbolise the continuity of English life, letters and national identity. Yet there were other wartime affiliations and attachments that made up this "island story", too.

Some years ago, I interviewed a former soldier who had witnessed horrific fighting and much death during the Sicily landings and the D-Day invasion - Alexander Bernstein, son of a Hackney fur-cutter - who told me that similarly he had carried two slim volumes with him during those terrible times: the Soviet constitution of 1936 and Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal. Bernstein was equally patriotic and brave, while adhering to greater hopes for international political change. My reason for interviewing him was that after the war he gained fame as the novelist Alexander Baron (changing his name at his publisher's request). His work is now enjoying a significant revival of interest, with four novels back in print and two more appearing later this year.

On being demobbed in 1946, Baron told me, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he got back to Hackney. "I wanted to write a novel about the war. When I came out of the army, I was interviewed by a committee. They said, 'What do you want to do? And how can we help you?' And I said, 'I want a typewriter.' There was a 12-month waiting list. They got me a portable typewriter straight away and I just went home."

That novel was From the City, from the Plough, published in 1948 and reprinted five times in its first six weeks. The book went on to sell nearly a million copies and was hailed by critics as one of the most authentic portrayals of war ever written. On the evening of the launch party at Jonathan Cape's offices in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, Baron arrived by bus, took one look at the crowded rooms filled with London's literary elite, turned on his heel and returned home.

His determination to tell the story of the poor, bloody infantry was driven by a realisation that "the first novels to get published [about the war] were all by officers. Either by officers or . . . the kind of intellectuals to whom the army was an agony. I read those books and I thought that nobody was writing about the ordinary soldiers." Baron was formerly of the left, but his clandestine involvement with the Communist Party ended after the war; he was disillusioned with the party's constant changes of policy directed from Moscow and by stories he heard from those returning from Spain and the International Brigades (which he had also attempted to join).

Nearly 70 years after the events it describes, From the City, from the Plough is still a searing book. All of the author's sympathies and affections are with the anxious young conscripts who make up the Fifth Battalion of the Wessex Regiment, training on the south coast and waiting for D-Day. The more this motley group of innocents is individualised - and Baron is adroit at vivid characterisation - the greater the shock when, within hours of landing in Normandy, most of them are dead. Drowned, blown to pieces by grenades, crushed by tanks, they lie limbless and eviscerated, their corpses scattered across the cornfields and orchards.

A series of novels followed in quick succession, each consolidating Baron's reputation: There's No Home (1950), Rosie Hogarth (1951), With Hope, Farewell (1952), The Human Kind (1953) and a further nine thereafter (the last was published in 1977; Baron died 22 years later). Many of his books dealt with working-class life in London during and after the war, when class and radical politics seemed interwoven.

There's No Home describes an interlude in the Sicily campaign when a tired and depleted battalion billets in a small town and the troops briefly merge their lives with those of the Sicilian poor, some of the men even setting up home with local women and their children.

Although Baron was appalled by the poverty and violent conflict endured there, he was entranced that he was in a world touched by Homer. The novel's title comes from the ballad "The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily" by the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson, who also served in Sicily and later translated Gramsci's essays - another soldier whose cultural and political attachments were wider and more various than is often assumed or implied by recent historians of the war.

Rosie Hogarth portrays the optimism that pervaded the streets of London immediately after the war, evoking a typical Sunday morning near Chapel Street Market in Islington: "Thousands of people are at work on allotments and ten times as many in their gardens. Flights of cyclists swoop through the streets. The football teams are clattering off to the parks in hundreds, the morning swimmers to the pools." Britain was en fête, but cold war politics was just beginning to set in.

It was only when the horror of the concentration camps became fully known that Baron began to revise his own identity as Jew. He had grown up in a freethinking, working-class Jewish family that had paid little attention to ritual or faith, but small incidents of anti-Semitism in the Communist Party and the army caused him to think again.

Two of his best novels were still to come, both touching on Jewish themes. The Lowlife, published in 1963, focused on Harryboy Boas, a Hofmann presser in the rag trade and one of the last of the Luftmenschen, the Jewish street philosophers who once filled the pavements of Whitechapel, Hackney and Stoke Newington of a summer's evening, putting the world to rights. This celebration of one of the less illustrious aspects of Jewish life in London featured the bohemian, sometimes semi-criminal subculture of the eponymous "lowlife": the gambler, bookworm and Soho drinking-club habitué. Furthermore, it was a novel still in love with "the London street" as the locus of all human affairs. Iain Sinclair, an early advocate
of this novel, wrote: "The wonder of The Lowlife is that it does justice to a place of so many contradictions, disguises, deceptions, multiple identities."

In 1969, King Dido emerged, the most accomplished of Baron's historical novels, based on his long-standing admiration for Arthur Morrison's 1896 classic social reform novel, A Child of the Jago. Baron transmutes this slum melodrama into a fast-paced revenge tragedy. Dido Peach, a dockworker of suggested Romany or Jewish origins, dominates the novel from start to finish. There is something of the Heathcliff figure about him, a complex, mysterious man whom it is hard to like but who represents some kind of vital force in the backstreets of Bethnal Green, matched and eventually defeated only by the equally frightening Metropolitan Police inspector Merry, his archetypal class nemesis, whose literary origins are clearly based on Victor Hugo's ruthless Javert in Les Misérables.

Baron's writing always displays European influences. Dostoevsky and Ignazio Silone were as important to him as Dickens and, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, he was sent on a political mission to Paris where he was bought lunch by André Malraux and questioned by Louis Aragon. His novels illuminate those places and situations where individual lives and public morality meet and clash: the London street, the political movement, the conscript barracks, the small town caught up in war.

Each of Baron's novels created its own moral world. And, for a while, his work made a sig­nificant contribution to that vital postwar humanist "moment" in European cinema, fiction and intellectual life - a return to which we sorely need today.

New editions of novels by Alexander Baron are published variously by Black Spring Press and Five Leaves Publications

An updated edition of Ken Worpole's study of British working-class and popular fiction, "Dockers and Detectives", is published by Five Leaves (£8.99)

Ken Worpole’s latest book, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, will be published by Little Toller in 2021

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks